Is It Saturday or Sunday? Manuscript

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I’ve never preached a Holy Saturday service. Christians also call it Great Saturday, Easter Eve, or Black Saturday.

If you do a Lenten reading of the Gospels, going back forty days and planning ahead to read the resurrection stories on Easter, Holy Saturday reading is pretty easy.

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was placed in it. 56 Then they went home. There they prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath day in order to obey the Law.

Verse fifty-five is for context. Verse fifty-six is it, and only the second half. They went home and prepared spices and perfumes on Friday, before their shabbat, their sabbath, had started. Jews observed the sabbath from sundown to sundown. This day, this Saturday, is also referred to as The Great Sabbath.

What happened during the Great Sabbath?

Nothing. The women followed the Jewish law by resting on the Sabbath. Nothing changed.

Jesus was taken and murdered, except it was state-sanctioned so we call it “executed,” betrayed by the religious leaders, who lied and framed him during his mockery of a trial, then turned him over to the soldiers who occupied Israel, who hated the Jews and with a full-throated, racist hatred. That sign, “The King of the Jews?” Step back from the double-meaning that you might know and think about that. They took a Jew and beat him viciously, then put him in a robe and “crown,” laughed at him and spat on him, then made a sign to let the world know that this ragged, bleeding criminal was the Jewish King.

Do you understand that? Soldiers for the occupying army are making very clear that any uprising under this king will fail. The Jewish leaders, the ones who turned Jesus over to this torture, protested: “Don’t say ‘King of the Jews,’ but ‘This man claimed to be King of the Jews.’”

19 Pilate had a notice prepared. It was fastened to the cross. It read,

Jesus of nazareth, the king of the Jews.

20 Many of the Jews read the sign.

That’s because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city. And the sign was written in the Aramaic, Latin and Greek languages. 21 The chief priests of the Jews argued with Pilate. They said, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews.’ Write that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.

22 Pilate answered, “I have written what I have written.”

They wrote in three different languages, “The King of the Jews.: They wanted everyone in sight, anyone who could read, to grasp that there would be no Jewish uprising, no Jewish King. This is what happens to a Jewish King.

Conquering armies conquer, and when there is any threat of rebellion, they usually crush it ruthlessly, violently. When King Herod thought there was the slightest chance of a baby growing up to overthrow him, he had all the children three years old and under slaughtered. All of them.

That’s the power ruling on Saturday afternoon. Saturday afternoon, Jesus is dead. The women are resting because that’s the law on the sabbath. The soldiers are soldiering, doing their duty. Beating and flogging and humiliating Jesus, that was just their duty, maybe something they enjoyed more because they really did hate the Jews or less because “let’s just kill him and be done with it.” Pilate went back into his palace. The crowds disbursed.

Joseph of Arimethea, who was on the Jewish Council. had not only a change of heart but such a transformation that he dared take responsibility for a dead criminal and provide him a place of honor to bury him. He took Jesus and had him buried in an empty tomb, not a pauper’s grave, not just tossed by the side of the road. It was a strange decision, to put this stranger, this false prophet, in an honored place of burial, where no one had been buried before. Then Joseph went home and rested, too, because anything that could be done, he had done.

 

Sunday morning comes.

Everything changes on Sunday. Literally everything changes for us.

Is is Saturday or Sunday?

 It was very early in the morning on the first day of the week. The women took the spices they had prepared. Then they went to the tomb. 2 They found the stone rolled away from it. 3 When they entered the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 They were wondering about this. Suddenly two men in clothes as bright as lightning stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified. They bowed down with their faces to the ground. Then the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 6 Jesus is not here! He has risen! Remember how he told you he would rise. It was while he was still with you in Galilee. 7 He said, ‘The Son of Man must be handed over to sinful people. He must be nailed to a cross. On the third day he will rise from the dead.’ ” 8 Then the women remembered Jesus’ words.

9 They came back from the tomb. They told all these things to the 11 apostles and to all the others. 10 Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them were the ones who told the apostles. 11 But the apostles did not believe the women. Their words didn’t make any sense to them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He bent over and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves. Then he went away, wondering what had happened.

 

First thing Sunday morning, nobody knows anything has changed yet. Think about this moment. This is our moment that I want us to understand this morning.

The women wake up, probably first, certainly very early. Or maybe they didn’t sleep. I’ve been there, both ways. Have you ever woken up, felt good, felt normal, and then remembered? Maybe a tragedy, maybe a horrible situation, and it hits you again as you’re waking up, a brick to the face. You wish you could have stayed oblivious for another 30 seconds, just to not have to remember how bad things are. But they are and forgetting doesn’t change it. Even worse is when the grip of grief and shock and sorrow won’t let you go and nothing you do can pry their grip loose, not even long enough to drift off for a few minutes. It’s “very early in the morning,” which can also be translated “at early dawn” or “before first light.” The women are trying to get to the tomb early. Do you know why? They want to dress the body before it starts to decompose. At this hour on Sunday morning, their direct concern is the practicality of dealing with a corpse.

Step back. You know what’s going to happen next. You know what they’ll find when they get to the tomb. Go split screen in your mind. Picture this is what the women are talking about, this is the mood in their rooms as they light candles to go out in the dark to perform the last act of service, the final gesture of love for a man who can no longer do anything for them. Was he wrong? Were his teachings false? Was his belief in God too hopeful? Did God fail him? Do any of those questions even matter now that he’s dead?

Their hearts are heavy as stone and they’re trying to follow through with an act that is the right thing to do but in the end what does it mean for this dead man? And they’re going to an empty tomb. They’re minutes away from encountering angels. They’re about to find out that everything, everything has changed and Jesus wasn’t wrong about any of it. They just couldn’t grasp what he told them.

Get this: Jesus wasn’t wrong about any of it; they just couldn’t grasp what he told them. How true is that for us?

Easter means that although we’re still talking about taking care of Jesus’ body, Jesus has risen from the grave. We’re still discussing whether they’re going to come hunt us down because we followed him. We’re asking one another, “Who will role away the stone?” We’ll get answers, and so far beyond the scope of what we could have imagined. What is Peter thinking about on Saturday? Imagine what Peter’s Saturday night was like…

When the women come back from the tomb, which does not have a dead body that “belongs” there, but which does have two beings dressed in white who don’t normally belong there, the men, the male disciples, the fishermen and the tax collector and the revolutionary, don’t believe them.

5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.

They think the women are looloo, loco. This may be borrowing trouble, but do they not believe them because they’re women? Women were not legal witnesses in that time and culture, were the legal property of their husbands or fathers, and I don’t think it was a mere coincidence that these women got to be the first witnesses. These were women who had faithfully followed Jesus. On one level, God gave them this in keeping with how Jesus exploded the confining, smothering, dehumanizing roles of women in their culture. Jesus taught them as he taught the disciples, making them companions among his followers, receiving financial support from them.

On another level, the Messiah who taught that genuine, meaningful greatness comes from service, who washed his twelves apostles’ feet hours before he died, rewarded these women’s humble service by giving them the good news of Resurrection first. Isn’t that just like Jesus? The women came to the tomb to dress the body with spices and perfumes. For this tiny attempted action, they got to see angels, they got to hear news beyond their most desperate and ridiculous hopes. Jesus taught that a mustard seed of faith is enough to move a mountain, that giving a cup of cold water to any thirsty person is an encounter with God, that two tiny copper coins given in faith equal more than piles of coinage given for show, and their following through on this menial job instead of despairing and fleeing to their homes made them the first to switch from Saturday to Sunday Reality.

But the men laugh at them, or scoff, or ignore or rebuke or scold. The women are living in Sunday morning, they have moved through darkness and despair into Resurrection and hope. Sunday morning, the men are still living Saturday. Jesus is not in the tomb, but they still believe he is. The women told them the truth, and they brushed it off. There is the Reality that exists on Sunday, and then the reality the men are still living. They’re wrong. They’re in the dark. But right in this moment they are basing all their thoughts and decisions in this Saturday reality in which they believe.

Except Peter.

Peter has to see.

These are wonderful words to me: “But Peter.

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.

Peter has to know. If there’s any slightest chance that the Saturday Reality is not the Final Word, not the Final Interaction Peter will have with Jesus, Peter has to see. I’m picturing that the rest of the guys are laughing and snarking at the women, or just won’t even respond:

“Yeah, right, there’s no body there, Jesus grew wings and flew away, did you see his body, you stupid—Peter, where are you going? Peter!”

He bent over and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves. Then he went away, wondering what had happened.

Even so, Peter is not sure. Now his reality is somewhere between Saturday and Sunday. There’s no body there. Jesus’ corpse is not in that tomb. What happened? Faith begins when the reality we “knew” with certainty suddenly gets shaken up and maybe, maybe…this is true? U2 describes this in a song: “At the moment of surrender/Of vision over visibility” When the vision of what is True becomes more real than what’s visible to my physical eyes. That’s the moment of faith.

But Peter is still going fishing on Sunday because that’s what he knows and he’s going back to the reality he lived before.

Jesus is going to have to confront Peter more directly, with a lot of fish, before Peter moves all the way into Sunday reality.

 

In which reality are we living?

I’m not saying if we just believe in Resurrection, all the bad things in our world will disappear. I am saying everything changes for us, in us, and the impossible things become possible.

Sunday morning, racism can change. It can. You know how I know? Slavery used to be legal. Slavery in many countries in the world became illegal when followers of Jesus spoke out against it, and fought it, and refused to accept it any longer because Jesus had changed their hearts. Jesus had taught them to see people differently. Jesus had overcome death and made the impossible, possible.

Sunday morning, death no longer wins. Sunday morning, the racist hatred that killed Jesus can be overcome by Jesus love in the power of His resurrection.

Sunday morning, the women go the grave to serve in the last way available to them and come back with a wild tale. They are the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus who is the Christ, after all.

Sunday morning, we can change the current epidemic of violence against women. The reports don’t mean it’s suddenly happening, they mean it’s finally out in the open, and in the light is where sin loses its power and God heals and restores. Sunday morning means we repent of sexism in our own relationships and then follow Jesus by speaking out and calling our churches first, and then our societies, to repentance. We aren’t living in Saturday anymore. It’s Sunday morning.

Sunday morning, we decide if we believe everything has changed or if we are still living in Saturday.*(Big old footnote)

Saturday, we have disciples who think their time of following Jesus has ended. Now listen to what happens after they experience Sunday:

27 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. 30 The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

That’s Peter, the same Peter whose words on Friday were, “I swear to God, I’ve never heard of this man Jesus!” This is the difference between Saturday and Sunday. Peter says this to the exact same people who tried Jesus and convinced Pilate to crucify him.

Here’s what happens next in Acts 5:

33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 34 But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. 35 Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. 36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. 37 After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. 38 So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Gamaliel speaks the truth of Sunday: if it is God, you will not be able to overthrow them; if you oppose what they do, you may even be found fighting against God.

Did the disciples believe they could change the world? I don’t know. But they did. The disciples, by the power of God through the Holy Spirit moving in them, changed the world. That tiny little band of Jesus followers who had given up on Saturday because there was no hope left in the world saw Sunday, found out that the women were right, and then saw Jesus Christ risen from the dead, right there with them, talking with them, answering their questions, giving them a hard time for their doubts. And they proceeded to preach the Gospel and all of us who have heard the Gospel have heard it because they spoke it and it spread throughout the world.

 

I will tell you the truth: Things look bad to me right now, in a lot of ways. Some things that I’ve prayed to see change seem to be getting worse. I know that sin and brokenness are real in the world and they have consequences.

But it’s not Saturday. Jesus rose from the dead. He did. It’s Sunday and I’m going to live like it’s Sunday.

The difference between knowing about God and knowing God is that if you know God, you also know that God can change you. If you know God, you’re already changed. You might have forgotten it, you might be ignoring it now, you might be doubting it, but God has changed you and will continue to change you. You’ve already lived Sunday. If you’re back to living Saturday, I get it. It’s easy to do. But it’s not Reality. That’s not the truth.

This is the picture I want to leave you with. It’s not a choice between Saturday when I’m hopeless and Sunday when I know I can make things happen.

This is knowing Jesus and the power of His Resurrection: If we live in Saturday, we are blind to the reality that Jesus has died and risen from the dead; we are weeping over an empty tomb.

If we live in Sunday, we follow Jesus who rose from the dead and will lead us where He chooses, in His power, and He will change us and change the world through us. Our job is not to laugh at the women when they come tell us. Our job is to run to the tomb, to believe the unbelievable because we know it to be true—vision over visibility—and then to follow Jesus, to live Sunday, to let God lead us where the Spirit’s Power will open the tomb and raise the dead to life again.

 

 

*This is an excerpt from my friend Erna’s blog, Feisty Thoughts. I considered including this in my sermon but didn’t.  

I need an Easter that has an answer for Trayvon, Tamir, Rekia Boyd, Sandra, Bland, and Stephon Clark.
I need an Easter that has something to say to survivors of Indian Boarding schools, and the generations of those traumatized by its legacy.
I need an Easter that has something to say about white supremacist evangelical Christianity.
I need an Easter that has something to say about white women who wont’ stop crying and recentering race conversations on themselves.
I need an Easter that has something to say to young queer believers who are considering suicide instead of coming out.
I need an Easter that addresses patriarchy in the Korean American church.
I need an Easter that sees and helps undocumented people whose families are being torn apart.
I need an Easter where you don’t have to be a perfect, super special, amazing immigrant for people to care about you.
I need an Easter that can dismantle the NRA.
I need an Easter that can address gun violence.
I need an Easter that addresses mass incarceration and the for profit prison system.
I need an Easter that doesn’t just talk about living water, but gets clean water to Flint.
I need an Easter where sexual violence against women, especially women of color, is talked about openly and addressed courageously.

Every year Easter is about individual sin. But I need an Easter that is big enough for our collective sin and brokenness, big enough for our systemic and institutionalized brokenness. I need an Easter that goes beyond the personal. The things that overwhelm my heart and soul right now have less to do with my personal wretchedness, than the brokenness of the systems I’m embedded in, participate in, and that impact me and the communities I love.

Seeing for Yourself Manuscript

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It’s first light, just coming over the horizon, but you’ve been up for an hour already. That’s early, even for you. Your brothers must have had a surprise, jumping on your mat to wake you and finding nothing except mat to land on. You’re on your second trip back from the well now, so your hardest chore is almost over. It’s a little risky, hauling water in the dark, especially now, when the city is going so crazy with Passover coming, but it’s obvious you don’t have anything of value, unless some lazy thug decides the water in your bucket is worth beating you up. But now home is within sight.

Today is the day. People have been talking about it all over your neighborhood. It’s actually funny to hear them talk about him because there’s always a better story. It sounds just like fisherman or hunters who keep outdoing one another.

“No, I heard he told the Pharisees they were children of hell.”

“Yeah, but my cousin said he heard directly that he walked on water. On top of the water!”

“Your cousin didn’t see that, though.”

“No, but he heard it from the guys who follow him everywhere.”

“So? We heard he cast a demon!”

“One? My aunt who lives in Galilee, where he spends all his time, said he cast out a whole legion of demons!”

“That’s just crazy. Nobody has a legion of demons.”

“Yeah, but that’s not crazier than Lazarus. You know what they’re saying about Lazarus, right? That’s a respectable family. They’re not gonna make something like that up. There were like a hundred people there. Who would make that up? I think that might be true…”

Then, every time, the talk turns to what he might do to the Romans. It’s always funny to hear adults whispering just like kids. That’s when you have to turn invisible to get to hear. Nobody does that better than you. How many hundreds of times has your mother told you never to speak to an adult except when the adult speaks first? You just took that as a strategy. Stand still, or sit silently, look away from the speaker, act like your attention is elsewhere, never ever make eye contact, and it’s like they can’t even see you. You’ve even heard some neighbors hint that you aren’t all that bright. Nobody cares if the slow child is hanging around, playing in the dust. Poor slow child. If they only knew how many secrets you’ve heard.

Today, you’re also telling a little bit of a not-quite-truth. Of course, it could be the truth.

“I got my chores done early. Can I spend the day with Daniel?”

Daniel might be there. If he was smart, he would be. But it’s not that likely, because Daniel is a little too cautious. But he’ll be out chasing around, playing hide with the others, so it won’t be obvious to anyone that you’re not with him.

Yeah, it’s a little crazy. But your mother is just happy the chores are done. Your dad won’t be back until late. He won’t even know you were gone. And one fewer child around to fight and get in the way? Mother’s fine to see you go.

The leaving part is easy. The arriving might be something different.

Everyone in town and every stray dog knows he’s coming today. The rumors about him disagree and conflict sometimes, but somehow there’s a one-hundred percent certainty he will arrive in Jerusalem today. They’re even sure which road he’s coming by. It’s as if runners are going ahead, announcing his coming, but that’s not something to say aloud. That’s what they do for victorious generals and, of course, the Roman Emperor, may the Almighty One remove him from that accursed throne.

But that’s why it’s irresistible. How many false Messiahs have come through Jerusalem? How many claiming they are “The One?” How many strong men have gotten killed in doomed uprisings? Too many.

But what if…? What if this really is the one? Today might be the day! There’s something different about this one, if any of the stories have any truth to them. He doesn’t claim to be Messiah loudly and proudly like they all did, but he’s done ten times more to make people think he is. He calls himself “Son of Man.” What does that mean? The old men debated that passage from the Prophet Daniel. How could this man, this son of a laborer, claim to be what Daniel describes? That’s impossible.

Unless…

So no one really knows who he is, not really. Maybe his closest followers do, but nobody here. The whispers have gotten louder and more excited; there might be ten thousand people in the streets when you get there, even going as early as you possibly can.

As you get closer–and it is a long walk, even for you–you can hear the crowd well before you see them. It’s loud, like a buzzing, like what they say locust sound like when they come in clouds, just like you’ve always imagined happened in Egypt. How many people can this be?

Too many. Change of plans. There’s no way you’re going to get even a glimpse of him unless he’s riding into the city on an elephant, like they say that one general did against Rome. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Then everyone would know his intentions for certain!

You’re doubling back on your path now, because the further outside the city you can intersect with his path, the better chance you’ll have to see him. Then what? Maybe try to walk along with the crowd? Not for the first time, you consider this could get dangerous. What if it turns into a riot? What if—just what if—the Romans have heard, since everyone knows, it’s the worst-kept secret ever—and they bring their centurions? That seems unlikely, but there are rumors…

Still, that’s exactly why you can’t miss it. What if…never to be said aloud, just in your own thoughts, and the Almighty’s ear…the centurions do show up, and he…he…someone who can overpower demons and tell a storm to stop, could he…could he wipe them out?

Any risk is worth the tiniest chance to see that happen to these evil dog occupiers. Right? After all they’ve done?

When you reach the road going this way, further from the center of the city, there’s still a crowd, but not as big yet. Oh, but they’re excited. It’s like one of those high holy days when everyone starts in early: people shouting to make themselves heard over everyone else’s shouting. It’s funny to watch grown-ups behave like this.

A bunch of them are waving branches around that they must have just cut down from the palm trees near the road. The smell is really strong and green. Is green a smell? They’re waving those branches around, fanning themselves, and it’s almost like sea waves. Crazy.

You keep pushing up the road, and there’s the Eastern Jerusalem gate where the Mount of Olives comes down into the city. You’ve come too far to hesitate or second-guess, but if your parents ever heard you had gone outside one of the city gates by yourself… Better not to think about it. You say a quick prayer that you won’t have the dumb luck of being seen by someone you know.

You pass through the gate, which is wide and if there are guards anywhere you can’t see them through all these people. He’s got to be close now. Everyone’s waving those branches and some are tossing them out on the road. But there’s something else on the road. What is that? You’re hiking up this hill and everyone here has committed to holding their space, so you have to squeeze in between people, but you’re really good at that, almost as good as you are at becoming invisible. You take extra care not to step on anyone and keep weaving in between families and shouting men and other kids jumping up and down, trying to see, even though there isn’t anything to see yet.

As you weave, you pass really close to the road. Those are people’s coats! Cloaks and shirts and all kinds of clothing, folks are just tossing them into the road. Crazy! You see a nice one that might be your size but it’s probably a really bad idea to grab it.

The shouting suddenly crescendos. People are going crazy now. You chose well. If you stop right here, you’ll be able to see him for sure. Especially if he’s on an elephant, or, more likely, a stallion or maybe an ox. But something in you, some weird urge, refuses. You push on, now bumping into people, but everyone is bumping and colliding. It’s that kind of crowd now. You’re not a pickpocket and you better not be mistaken for one now or you’ll get beaten or killed.

There he is! He’s on a…wait—he’s on a tiny horse. No he’s not; he’s on a colt. Maybe a yearling? Hang on—that’s a donkey colt! It’s too sturdy in the legs to be a horse colt, but it’s really young.

People are whooping and shouting and you’re laughing and you literally can’t hear yourself it’s so loud, but that is not an elephant! Why would he choose that? And he’s not…he’s not handsome. His eyes are…

“Hosanna!” everyone shouts around you. More cloaks thrown into the road. More branches. “Hosanna to the son of David!” “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Stop, stop!” someone yells behind you. You look back and almost jump into the street. It’s a Pharisee, a whole group of Pharisees, with their special cloaks which they have not thrown and they are not waving palm branches. In the midst of everyone screaming and crying out to the Most High, what are they saying?

A stout one who bellows like a shofar overpowers everyone around him: “Teacher, make them stop! Order your disciples to stop! This is heresy! What they say is an abomination!”

The colt is walking so slowly but the man stops it. He looks right at this Pharisee. What words could describe this man’s eyes? The crowd isn’t quiet but it’s maybe half as loud, with people pausing between shouts to see how the man will answer. Everyone says he doesn’t get along with the Pharisees; some even claim they want him silenced, or worse. But now you aren’t hearing stories, now you are seeing—and hearing—for yourself! No one will believe this. But that’s okay; you could never risk telling anyone, anyway, because if this got back to your parents…

“I could tell them to be silent. I could. But I tell you, if these were silent,” and he gestures with his arms at all of you standing close by, “the stones themselves would shout out.”

He didn’t say it loudly but everyone explodes with screams and hollers and “Hosannas,” what feels like ten times louder than before. Except you. You turn to look at the Pharisees and they are huddling together, no longer looking at the man, talking amongst themselves.

You aren’t yelling because you’ve determined you’re going to get as close as you possibly can now. There’s no way you’ll be able to follow along through the crowd, even though he’s going slower than slow, because their stacked up too dense and wild and that won’t work to sneak through, even for you. The only other choice is to go out into the road with him and his followers. You don’t belong there and they’ll throw you out the second they notice you, so that’s crazy and stupid…and here you go.

It’s not hard getting out there. Nobody’s pushing against you, once you take that step, but with all this wild crowd on the sides, there are only a few big clumps of people out in the road. You’re not going to blend in with any of these huge guys with beards and–

He stopped. He just stopped in the middle of it all and got down from his donkey colt. You freeze dead still. You’re about four people away from him, big burley men, but that close. If anyone looks at you now, you’re done. Maybe this is the time he does something powerful? But since the moment you saw that donkey colt, the military attack has seemed unlikely. Who attacks on a little colt? You’re just a kid and even you know that.

The man turns his head and for a split-second, you think he’s going to look right at you. But he’s looking down the hill. You suddenly realize there’s a tremendous view from here. You can see most of the city. You might be able to find your house if you looked long enough.

You’re not making any sudden moves, because this is how you’ve learned not to be noticed. But when you shift your eyes you can see the man’s face and when you shift them back, you can see the whole city.

He’s looking out at the city, then around at the group of men and women with him, then back out. He puts his hand on the nearest man’s shoulder.

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

And he cries. His voice choked while he said that and now he’s standing there, crying. In the middle of this frenzied parade, you see tears dripping off his face. His followers are staring at him. You’re staring at him. Of the things you’ve seen today, this would be the hardest to explain, the hardest for people to believe; yet for some reason, this is what you most want to tell. Who is this man?

Then he looks at you. Not maybe. He’s looking right at you. His followers are staring at you.

Panic rises in your chest. He steps over to you.

And then he puts his arms around you and hugs you. His arms feel strong enough to snap you, or to lift the entire world, but his hug is gentle…and then he lets go and climbs back on the colt and he and everyone else move on. One of his disciples, a really ugly one, nods at you as he goes, like he knows what you know, what you now know.

But you stand there, alone, on palm branches and cloaks, as their shouting moves off into the distance.

Is that the Messiah? What kind of Messiah is he?

What’s going to happen next?

You start back for home.

An Acceptable Fast Manuscript

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[Manuscript of sermon preached on Isaiah 58 at ICF, 11/19/17]

What is the Kingdom of God?

Before you answer that, and it’s a real question, I asked this question to a group of young adults and they all looked blankly at me. One finally raised his hand and tentatively said, “Heaven?” That bummed me out. Severely. If we’re teaching so little about the Gospel of Jesus Christ that they don’t know about God’s Kingdom, we’ve really missed the boat.

Okay, no pressure. What is the Kingdom of God?

One more thing: Heaven is part of the answer. It just isn’t the whole answer.

???

Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God. That was his stated purpose. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 1 verse 14: “now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, [the Gospel], and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Matthew 1:17 beginning of Jesus’ ministry: from that time Jesus began to proclaim, repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are the same thing, interchangeable terms. Matthew 1:23: Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. Luke 4, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has healed a bunch of people and done crazy stuff, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, cast out demons. The next morning, Jesus goes out to pray before the sun comes up. And the folks who’d had a really good day with Jesus the day before went looking for him and when they found him, they said, “That was amazing! Let’s invite some more people here and you can do more of these miracles.” But what did Jesus say? “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities, also; for I was sent for this purpose.” For I was sent for this purpose. Why did the Father send Jesus? The first reason Jesus gives is to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God. That’s. Why. Jesus. Came.

So Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and in Luke 4:18-19, we get a glimpse of what that means: Jesus stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah ws given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the bling, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then he sat down, everyone watching him, and said, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The Gospel is the Gospel of the Kingdom. The good news is the good news of the Kingdom. When we’ve told people that the Gospel is “Jesus died for your sins so that you can be forgiven and go to heaven,” we’ve missed the whole what-is-life-here-for part. That’s a big deal. The Gospel is not only “God wants to make you clean from your sin so that you can be with Him in Heaven.” I would go so far as to say that God’s forgiving your sins is just a crucial step to get you started with the Gospel. God definitely wants you with Him in Heaven. He wants you to be part of His Kingdom, here, now.

After John the Baptist, who proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, the coming of God’s Kingdom, was arrested, Jesus began his ministry. And John is in prison. He still has disciples, he’s still trying to live the calling God has given him as faithfully as he can. And he’s hearing these funky things that Jesus is doing. He’s in prison; he can’t see for himself, he can’t go ask for himself. But he’s confused, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or are we to wait for another?” Get the gravity of this: John the Baptist went out into the wilderness to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, who was Jesus. He said things like “I’m not worthy of untying his sandals” and “I baptize you with water but one is coming who will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.” John baptized Jesus! And now he asks, through his disciples, “Are you really the one? Or did I misunderstand and we should wait for someone else?” This is John’s purpose, John’s calling before he’s born, while he’s still in utero, remember? And how does Jesus answer?

Luke 7:24 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sigh, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

Yes, I’m the one, yes, these are the signs of the Kingdom of God, yes you got it right, and blessed is anyone who receives the Kingdom of God, not with offense but with joy.

Jesus did miracles. He healed and restored. Now tell me what all these people had in common in Jesus’ time: the lame, lepers, the deaf, the dead (uh, what?), the poor. What do they have in common?

They have need, and they are outcasts from society. They are the unclean. They are the rejects, the disadvantaged, the persecuted, the oppressed. They are the poor.

Isaiah 58

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

We’re near the end of our series in Isaiah and I consider this passage pivotal. I wanted to begin with the Gospels so we could see clearly how this prophetic passage foretells Jesus’ declaration of the Kingdom of God. It also rejects, I would say categorically, a self-centered religion that allows people to pray and go through their rituals while living unjustly.

Get this: Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.

These are sins. This is rebellion. Ready?

For day after day they seek me out;
they
seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and
seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

Fasting is, arguably, the most intimate thing we can do with God. We are praying, we are seeking God, and we are foregoing food, so that we can focus exclusively on God. Fasting is not “Okay, God, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t eat for a day and you do what I ask.” Fasting is “I am utterly dependent on you, and I am throwing myself before you.” In the Old Testament, you see five categories of fasting: (1) fasting as a sign of grief or mourning, (2) as a sign of repentance and seeking forgiveness for sin, (3) as an aid in prayer, (4) as an experience of the presence of God that results in the endorsement of his messenger, and (5) as an act of ceremonial public worship. We first see fasting in Exodus 34 when Moses fasts before the Lord.

The way God describes fasting is like, “Okay, you want to seek me, here is a direct route. Here, take this megaphone, not because I can hear you better, but because you will feel more like you’re getting through to me.” When we are desperate, truly desperate, we fast. That’s not a bad thing. God says to. It’s a good way to express grief or repentance. It’s also a spiritual discipline that many people incorporate into their regular rhythm of life. There was a stretch in which I would fast one day a week, and doing so really impacted me. It helped me focus more on God, it brought me into a place of clearer dependence, it actually helped me be more peaceful, which I thought was a surprising fruit of that discipline. I’ve been returning to fasting lately.

But like prayer, we can fast wrong. Can you think of an example of people praying wrong in Scripture? Good. Jesus says, “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray int the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Turly I tell you, they have received their reward.”

 

The people of Israel are asking, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?” God answers.

Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.

You are doing the “right” acts of worship, but you are not worshiping! Your hearts are not toward God! You say you’re humbling yourself and going before God, but you’re quarreling and fighting! You’re exploiting your workers! You’re oppressing instead of siding with the oppressed! You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it
only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

What kinds of questions are these called? Rhetorical questions. No, no this is not the kind of fast God has chosen.

You should humble yourself. You should bow your head before God. You should lie in sackcloth and ashes. You should forego food and call out to God.

That sounds pretty good, right? That’s fasting, isn’t it?

The key word here is “only.” Is it only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing your head? For prostrating yourself before God?

Absolutely not. And why not? Because the Gospel is not just me and Jesus, getting me “clean,” going through the right rituals, showing God my piety. That’s not the Kingdom of God.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Do you understand why I began with the Kingdom of God and with John the Baptist’s questions? This is the Kingdom of God. This is not some discarded Old Testament instruction that some old prophet told the people of Israel that doesn’t apply to our lives. This is the heart of the Gospel. Why? Because this is God’s heart.

I didn’t plan it this way, but this is my third consecutive sermon on biblical justice. I don’t know how you’d preach Isaiah 58 without talking about justice—it would be like fasting while fighting with wicked fists. Now I said that fasting is foregoing food for a time of focused prayer and seeking God with your heart. And I do believe that’s a decent short definition of the spiritual discipline of fasting. But our inward spiritual disciplines must coordinate with our outward ethical lives. The Israelites here were bowing and humbling themselves, but rejecting God in their hearts by continuing with their immoral practices.

But hear what God says is an acceptable fast, the fasting God has chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Poverty doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Poverty is a cycle that is both a result of people’s choices and of systemic injustice—which, when you come down to it, is also people’s choices, but powerful people’s choices, usually rich people’s choices, choices of people with something to gain by oppressing others. If you believe that people are poor only because they make self-destructive choices, you have not understand the depth of sin in this fallen world nor the teaching of Jesus about wealth. Hear me, yes, people’s choices play into their condition, but the state of poverty in the world first comes as a result of massive injustice, exploitation, oppression, and greed. When we get out our magnifying glass and look at one household and see that they are making foolish choices with their meager resources, we are choosing to be blind to the bigger picture, to the spiritual battle happening before our eyes.

When I tell you that Jesus is always on the side of the poor and the oppressed, that doesn’t mean merely that he is compassionate and feels bad for hurting people. That means in the spiritual warfare between those who evilly oppress and defy God and those who suffer oppression, Jesus chooses sides. That means he chooses sides for us, too. That means we follow the King by living out his Kingdom in all the ways these passages describe: loosing the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.

That, God says, is an fast he will accept. That is fasting from our power, fasting from our desire to be favored with the wealthy and the powerful and the successful when it means we have to turn a blind eye to injustice, when we have to pretend we don’t notice how things got so imbalanced in the first place—and continue to stay imbalanced.

In case I’m upsetting you here—and I’m okay if God is upsetting you, he does that—having wealth does not in itself make you sinful and greedy and oppressive. How you use your wealth is how God judges whether you are greedy and making the chains of oppression or just and breaking the chains of oppression. We have wealth and power, all of us, and God calls us to use it to make His Kingdom more present here, today. I’m not a legalist, I don’t believe we have to tithe our herbs and spices or that God expects us to eat only bread and water; God is extravagant and lavishes us with abundance. And. And we are called to share, and to use our power for righteousness and justice. Period.

I hope, I actually pray, that you will understand this is not my hobby horse or my soap box. This is God’s heart for his people. God seeks to set the oppressed free, to liberate those suffering poverty, and God seeks to transform us into his image by making us his partners in this purpose. That’s another way to describe God’s Kingdom: our partnership with God to love hurting and broken people and seek justice, through which we will become more like Jesus.

Do you see how different this is than the personal, private, just-me-and-Jesus approach to the Gospel? Because I don’t believe that is the Gospel. If I think the Gospel is only about me and Jesus, then my fast is not acceptable to God. Can you read this passage any differently? [I’m going to go a step further: we can make an idolatry of our ] Because this is acceptable fasting, this is the heart of seeking God:

Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

This is a dangerous road. What if we understand the people suffering hunger and illiteracy and depression are our own flesh and blood? What if they are our family? What if they belong to us and we belong to them? How will that change our choices? Our priorities?

God speaks through the prophet to make clear how fasting this way will change us:


8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

I had someone suggest, with a very good heart, that we could preach more on the Glory of God in Isaiah. Okay. This is the glory of God. To share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—who is the poor wanderer?

Yeah, that’s Jesus. That also might be the immigrant, but it’s definitely Jesus. He says so. And God, our glorious, almighty God, cares for all people, and will say especially those suffering—not because he loves them better, but because they have more need. God’s glory is many things, a sermon series in itself, but one thing I know shows God’s glory is the horrible enemy, the Samaritan, kneeling down beside the bleeding, bludgeoned Jew to carry him to the inn and save his life. That is God’s glory, that action glorifies the Almighty God of Heaven and Earth. These matter to God. When TJ’s One World Health opens a clinic and people who were suffering get the medical care and medicine they need, God is glorified. That reveals God’s glory! Can you read this passage any differently? ‘

then, then, your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Two more things and I’m done.

Why will God respond to us when we do these things but call us in rebellion and sin when we do the opposite?

9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The answer is: Because this is who God is. I said this before: Grace is for freeing us to seek God with all our hearts and minds and to live God’s calling, to be free for obeying Jesus’ words and having our joy made complete in him.

God loves us first. God doesn’t wait for us to be acceptable to love us, God loves us and his love changes us and makes us acceptable. But—and this is crucial to our understanding of Grace—when we sin and rebel and oppress and abuse, God doesn’t say, “Welp, I gave you grace, so I guess you’re good.” God says, “You’re killing yourself and you’re abusing my beloved and you must stop!” Grace doesn’t mean God’s turns a blind eye to our obedience, ever! That’s the point of Isaiah telling them their fast is unacceptable—they are exploiting their workers, they are doing as they please instead of as God pleases, they are opposing God’s Kingdom instead of seeking it. Grace means God will forgive you no matter what, and nothing you can do will make God love you more nor can you do anything to make God love you any less. Grace also means that God will keep calling you to repentance. If we’re not living for God’s Kingdom, we’re wasting our lives. It isn’t that God is manipulative and will only bless us when we finally do the stuff he prefers; the true blessings God desires to give us come through seeking God with our whole hearts, we are made in God’s image and He himself is our blessing, is our home, is our treasure. “Christ is enough for me?” Yeah, and also Christ is everything. Everything that matters.

That’s one. Acceptable fasting and grace go hand in hand. They are inseparable. God’s grace leads us to acceptable fasting. We can get there no other way. We only seek God’s Kingdom through God’s grace.

Two: God makes and gifts each of us uniquely. There are, literally, seven billion ways to seek God’s Kingdom, to fight for justice, to care for the oppressed, to love the least. God gives some of us gifts of healing. Then go heal. God gives some of us gifts of preaching. Then go preach. If you love kids, love kids—they need it, so bad. If you can disciple young people, disciple them—they need it, so bad. If you hate injustice, then fight it. If you feel compassion for depressed people, learn to counsel, learn to listen. An acceptable fast to the Lord our Glorious God, to Jesus Christ our Savior, happens when we seek God with our hearts and our gifts and join Him in the work to which he calls us. Yours doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. How can you spend yourself in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed? How can you help loose the chains and set the oppressed free? How can you share God’s love with people who don’t know they are loved and forgiven?

What part has Jesus given you in His Kingdom? Live that and 11 The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Amen.

An Acceptable Fast

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Sermon I preached on Isaiah 58.  

This one is a bit longer and I don’t hold back.  Be warned. 

God seeks to set the oppressed free, to liberate those suffering poverty, and God seeks to transform us into his image by making us his partners in this purpose. That’s another way to describe God’s Kingdom: our partnership with God to love hurting and broken people and seek justice, through which we will become more like Jesus.”

Starts at 0:15, midway through a joke.  Oh, well, I kind of messed up the joke, anyway. 

Corporate Judgment and Justice

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Sermon I preached on Isaiah 9:8-10:4.

This one is kind of intense. 

Note about my pre-prayer intro remarks:  Mitch, our musician on Sunday,  played a children’s song about bearing fruit, having branches, going bananas for God with lots of hand and body motions.  It was one of those songs that goes faster and faster each time through.  That was my reference to “waking up the congregation.”  

 

 

8 The Lord sent a word against Jacob,

and it fell on Israel;

9 and all the people knew it—

Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria—

but in pride and arrogance of heart they said:

10 “The bricks have fallen,

but we will build with dressed stones;

the sycamores have been cut down,

but we will put cedars in their place.”

11 So the Lord raised adversariesc against them,

and stirred up their enemies,

12 the Arameans on the east and the Philistines on the west,

and they devoured Israel with open mouth.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

13 The people did not turn to him who struck them,

or seek the Lord of hosts.

14 So the Lord cut off from Israel head and tail,

palm branch and reed in one day—

15 elders and dignitaries are the head,

and prophets who teach lies are the tail;

16 for those who led this people led them astray,

and those who were led by them were left in confusion.

17 That is why the Lord did not have pity ond their young people,

or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

and every mouth spoke folly.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

18 For wickedness burned like a fire,

consuming briers and thorns;

it kindled the thickets of the forest,

and they swirled upward in a column of smoke.

19 Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts

the land was burned,

and the people became like fuel for the fire;

no one spared another.

20 They gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied;

they devoured the flesh of their own kindred;e

21 Manasseh devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh,

and together they were against Judah.

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

10 Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees,

who write oppressive statutes,

2 to turn aside the needy from justice

and to rob the poor of my people of their right,

that widows may be your spoil,

and that you may make the orphans your prey!

3 What will you do on the day of punishment,

in the calamity that will come from far away?

To whom will you flee for help,

and where will you leave your wealth,

4 so as not to crouch among the prisoners

or fall among the slain?

For all this his anger has not turned away;

his hand is stretched out still.

 

Blessed Are the Shalom Makers

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Sermon I preached at International Christian Fellowship, 9-3-17, on Matthew 5:9, looking at the biblical concepts of shalom and justice and how they fit together.  Biblically, if we desire shalom, we seek God’s justice for others.

I  use a whole bunch of other Scriptures, so it may help to have a Bible to track with me.

BTW,  it’s 34:53, not 49:09.  Don’t let the timer fool you.